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Arts & Crafts of Himachal Pradesh

The geographic isolation of Himachal has allowed its people to evolve their own unique tradition of handicrafts. The mind-boggling range includes fine woodwork, traditional leather embroidery, beautifully patterned carpets, traditional woollen shawls and lots of other things.

 

Wood Carving

Forests all over the state abound in pine and deodar, besides walnut, horse chestnut and wild black mulberry. Wood has been used to great effect in temples and lavishly built palaces. The steep-roofed pine temples of northern HP often bear relief figures carved on their outer walls. Intricately carved seats, doors, windows and panels speak volumes of the craftspersons’ skill. The Bhimakali Temple of Sarahan is a perfect product of the kind.

 

Woodcarving is still a living tradition in HP. Pahari artisans use wood to make intricate jalis, trelliswork or perforated reliefs that filter light, transforming the interiors of a building with the play of light and shade and balancing mass with delicacy.

 

The carpenters of both villages and towns make beautiful objects of everyday use like vedis (low benches), bedlegs, cradles, bedsteads, low settees, boxes, ladles, churners, rolling pins, wooden utensils, charkhas (spinning wheels) and hukka nari (the pipe and body of the smoking pipe). You might like to take back something from their range of fruit bowls, beermugs, wooden jewellery, decorative boxes and carved images. Bamboo and willow bark is also stripped and fashioned into sturdy trays and baskets.

 

Painting

To say that HP has a rich tradition of painting would be an understatement. While museums and art galleries preserve the famous miniature paintings of the region, traditional ritual paintings can be seen in most village houses, on the floors and walls. Women draw magic diagrammatic designs called yantras on the thresholds on ceremonial occasions.

 

Floor paintings are white, done with rice paste, while wall paintings are colourful. The colours are from what the women use in their daily lives – red from kumkum (the liquid for bindi, the dot between the brows), yellow from turmeric powder, red ochre from golru (red clay), and so on.

 

In some places like Kangra, Mandi and Bilaspur, brilliant wall paintings are done in the torana griha (honeymoon room), where the newly married couple enjoy their first days of togetherness. This painting is known as kauhara or kamdeo. Temple walls, too, sometimes have bright motifs painted on them.

 

Various schools of miniature painting collectively called Pahari, flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries in the sub-Himalayan states. The hilly region, then divided into 22 princely states, was ruled by Rajput kings or chieftains who were all great connoisseurs of art, with most of them maintaining ateliers.

 

The focal points of their lives were war, hunting, lineage, and the zenana. Also partial to love themes, especially the legends of Radha and Krishna, the Rajputs liked them depicted in miniature paintings.

 

The Pahari Paintings of Mid-17th Century

The early Pahari paintings of the mid-17th century were in the Basholi style (dubbed so because of its association with the king of Basholi)

 

These are extraordinarily colourful and charged with vitality and emotion. Two persistent strains can be observed – a fondness for the portraits of the local rajas in plain white garments and for the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
The paintings bear resemblance to Rajasthani and Malwa paintings but this can be attributed to the fact that the kings of the princely states in Himachal were Rajputs.

 

Some of the telling characteristics are the use of extremely elegant two-dimensional architectural settings topped by domes or pavilions, bands of scrollwork pattern and the use of elaborately figured rugs

 

There are many striking works in this genre as the Basholi style, with its strong indigenous Indian element, is well suited to the portrayal of many-headed Shivas and many-armed Durgas (figures from the vast stockpile of Indian mythology).

 
Painters From The Mughal Court

The coming of painters from the Mughal court in the second quarter of the 18th century (due to the decline of the Mughal Empire) led to a complete transformation of the existing Basholi style.

 

There was a wholesale ferrying in of Mughal style and fashion, from dress to architecture to the arts. The resultant was the Guler-Kangra style.
The style owes a great deal to later Mughal painting, particularly in its receding planes, its fondness for quasi-realistic landscape and its frequent enlargement of the figures on the page.
This late Pahari style first appeared in Guler, and then in Kangra. Raja Goverdhan Singh (1744-1773) of Guler gave shelter to many artists

 
Kangra School of Paintings

Under the ambitious Sansar Chand (1775-1823), the Kangra School flourished happily. It is said that Sansar’s love for a gaddi (a tribe of Chamba-Kangra region) maiden drove him to commission the paintings.

 

Kangra Fort, where he held court for nearly 25 years, was once adorned with paintings and attracted art lovers from far and wide.
Later he moved his capital to Nadaun and finally to Sujanpur Tira. The temples and palaces at each of these places were adorned with lovely miniatures. The 1905 earthquake damaged many of these buildings but you can still see some of the miniature wall paintings.

 
The Kangra style of Paintings
 
The Kangra style is by far the most poetic and lyrical of Indian styles, says art historian J. C. Harle

His favourite subject here is ‘the idealization of woman, in flowing sari, head half-covered with a shawl, demure but stately, passionate and shy’. The more complex many-figured compositions – usually larger and horizontal in format – tend to illustrate events from the Krishna legend – the cowherd god putting out a forest fire, subduing the serpent Kaliya, or stealing the clothes of gopis (milkmaids of Braj) while they were bathing in the river.

 

The ability to handle large groups of figures and landscapes with towns or clusters of houses in the distance is admirable. Apart from intricate brushwork, Kangra miniatures are characterized by the skillful use of brilliant mineral and vegetable extract colours that possess an enamel-like lustre. But the strangest thing about these hill paintings is that you’ll never find snow-capped mountains in them!

 
Research shows that while the Kangra style became well-entrenched in the Hills, many offshoots emerged in regions like Kullu, Nurpur, Chamba and Mandi. The Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba is best-known for its exquisite collection of Pahari miniatures.
 
Thangkas

Places with a Tibetan community often sell intricate and brightly coloured cloth paintings called thangkas.
These are actually ritual paintings displayed during certain Buddhist festivals, but they happen to be extremely popular with foreign tourists (and cost the earth too!).
Thangkas are scroll paintings on canvas, edged with a border of rich silk, usually depicting the Buddha and other deities and the wheel of life. The painting follows complex dicta like proportional grids for each diety and traditional vegetable or mineral colours are used.

 
The Norbulingka Institute at McLeodganj is the centre of learning this ancient art of Tibet.
 
Rugs & Carpets

Carpets and blankets are almost synonymous with Himachali furnishing. Their brilliant colours and traditional motifs can make you forget your Persian back home! You’ll be spellbound by their appearance – Garudas (Vishnu’s mount, the eagle) perched on flowering trees, dragons, swastikas (auspicious Hindu/Buddhist emblem), flutes (symbolizing happiness) and lotus blooms (signifying purity).

 

In the higher reaches of the state, hillfolk rear sheep and goats and weave the wool and hair into traditional blankets, rugs and namdas (heavy rugs). Namdas are made with beaten wool. In fact men spinning wool by hand as they watch their flocks is a common sight in Himachal.

 

Fleecy soft blankets called gudmas are also very popular. They are made from the wool of the Giangi sheep. They come in natural wool colours and are finished with a red or black edging. You’ll have a lot of furnishings to choose from: thobis (floor coverings), karcha (mattresses), which are made from goat hair, pattoo cloth (like shawls), carpets and yarn made from soft wool. Back To Top

 
Garments & Accessories

Himachalis simply love to dress up. Their everyday wear is so colourful that you’d think that they were dressed up for a festive occasion.
The Gujjars (a semi-nomadic tribe) wear kurtas (long shirts) which are delicately embroidered with circular and linear patterns.
The people of Chamba are majorly fond of all sorts of accessories, which include bright rumals (scarves) worn by the women, bangles and rings made of horsehair and brightly patterned grass shoes. Traditional Footwear

 

Lahaul has its own traditional footwear. People wear the most interesting socks – we bet you’ve never seen anything like them before.

 

These handknit woollen socks are brilliantly patterned in bright and cheerful colours. Luckily for the rest of the world, they are sold in abundance in the bazaars of Himachal, along with gloves, mufflers and caps. The typical Kullu topi (cap), in shades of grey or brown and flat on the top, is rather striking too.

 

A band of colourful woven fabric brightens the front and the topi looks rather neat set at a rakish angle

 
Embroidery

Embroidery seems to be the favourite pastime of pahari women, their nimble fingers busy with needle and thread on lazy afternoons. Houses in HP are replete with beautiful pieces like rumals (scarves), coverlets, handfans, caps, cholis (bodices), gaumukhi (prayer gloves) and such things.
The motifs are either from the traditional stock of miniature painting, the landscape or are innovations of the women themselves. This urge to create and live with beautiful pieces is very much a part of pahari culture.

 

The red and orange richly embroidered silk rumals (scarves) of Chamba are simply beautiful. The women of Chamba have traditionally made them for a 1000 years now. These rumals are actually small shawls meant to be used as head coverings.

 

They often depict scenes from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Raas-lila of Radha and Krishna. The embroidery is done in silk yarn on tussar cloth or fine cotton. The stitches are so fine that there is no evidence of knots or loose threads. As such both sides of the rumal are alike.
The ground is usually white or cream, but the embroidery threads (usually red and orange) are in striking contrast. A finely embroidered rumal can take something like even a month to complete.

 

Woollen Garments

Wool is an auspicious thing in Himachal, and no ritual occasion goes without wearing woollen clothes. A quaint ritual during weddings, for instance, is to wrap the bride and groom in a woollen shawl to protect them from evil eyes.

 
Shawls

Extremely fine and valuable shawls are a speciality of Himachal and Kashmir. They are greatly sought after by tourists from all over the world.
In fact, shawl weaving is a major cottage industry in HP. These shawls, both plain and patterned, are made from the fine hair of pashmina goats. Pashm is the wool of a certain Asian species of mountain goat, Capra hircus.

 

The fine fleece used to make these shawls is that which grows beneath the rough outer hair. Did you know that the finest hair comes from the underbelly which is shed with the onset of summer?
The right mix of wool gives beautiful shades of grey, blue, mustard and black. Shawls in Kullu are often woven from the wool of angora rabbits. The borders of these plain-looking shawls are decorated with dazzling geometric designs. Shawls of Lahaul-Spiti, especially, are a riot of colours. (Also see Kullu)

 
Leather craft

Traditional Chamba chappals (slippers), plain or embroidered, are exceptionally comfortable to wear.
They are embroidered with multicoloured threads – red, black, green, yellow and blue, and imitation zari (gold thread). Tourists seem to love them and this inspires craftspersons to experiment with patterns and designs.

 

Apart from chappals, you can also pick from a range of shoes, sandals, socks and belts.

 
Jewellery

Chunky bead-and-metal jewellery of the hill people is usually in great demand. As with most tribal communities, the traditional attire includes ornaments for almost all parts of the body. Markets abound with stalls selling amulets, pendants, necklaces, daggers and rings – you’ll probably want to take everything home!

Fine jewellery is crafted out of silver and gold. The jewellers of the once-Rajput kingdoms of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi and Kullu were famous for their enamelling skills.

They mainly worked with silver and were partial to deep blue and green enamelling. They created exquisite pieces like elliptical anklets, solid iron-headed bangles, hair ornaments, peepal-leaf-shaped forehead ornaments, necklaces known as chandanhaars (a bunch of long silver chains linked by engraved or enamelled silver plaques) and pendants with motifs of the mother goddess.

An old Kangra pattern for silver anklets is a series of birds, archaic in design, connected by silver links. Unfortunately most of this is old jewellery and is no longer made. You could check it out in museums like the Kangra Art Museum in Dharamsala, the State Museum in Shimla and the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba

 

of the jewellery that’s made now, coin necklaces are extremely popular with pahari women. So much so that every pahari woman dreams of owning one.
Chokers called kach (made of silver beads and triangular plaques) and the collar-like hansali are also common. Heavy anklets, bangles and silver bracelets (kare) – solid or filled with shellac – with clasps in the shape of crocodile or lions heads are worn by all women.
In the Tibetan influenced Lahaul-Spiti, ornaments are studded with semi precious stones like coral, turquoise, amber and mother-of-pearl.

 
Metalwork

In a land where religion rules daily life, worship is bound to be an elaborate process. Temples are replete with pretty objects needed for worship, all fine specimens of metalwork

 

The metals used mainly are brass, copper, iron, tin and bell metal. Apart from the exquisite statuettes enshrined, there are several metal objects like bells with artistically designed handles, lamps, incense burners, low settees of silver or brass, vessels and ornate musical instruments in these temples.
In fact, the common lota (a small globular pot for storing water) itself is available in so many different forms all over the state that it’s amazing. Similar things may be used as everyday items at home.
Some of the more affluent homes possess beautifully fashioned teapots, smoking pipes, carved panels, doorknobs and various other artefacts. Metal workers haven’t lost their magic touch; this centuries old craft is still one of the most vital traditions of the state

 
Another Metalcraft- Mohra

Another metalcraft unique to Himachal is the mohra.Mohras or metal plaques representing a deity are common in Kullu and Chamba.
Most of them represent Shiva, but masks of the mother goddess Devi and other deities are not uncommon. These plaques are usually made of bronze, brass or silver and consecrated by a pujari (priest) before being installed in a temple.
The head is sculpted in bold relief, while the neck and shoulders are more summarily treated.
Each village has its own mohra. Mohras have been made in Himachal for at least 1,400 years now. They are taken out of the temples on a palanquin in processions during religious festivals like the grand Kullu Dussehra.

 
Stonework

Thanks to the fair variety of stone found in this hilly region, stone carving has been explored to the fullest in Himachal. Numerous shikhara (spired) stone temples dot the landscape. The Lakshminarayan temples of Chamba and the temples of Baijnath and Masrur in the Kangra Valley are some splendid specimens of the kind.
Beautifully carved memorial stone slabs called panihars are also found in several places, especially near temples and fountains.

 

Stone carvers in HP are hammering away at their blocks even today, producing several artefacts of domestic use widely available in the markets. These include traditional stoves (angithi), circular pots for storing (kundi), pestle and mortar (dauri danda), mill stones (chakki) and other things. The centres of sculpting in Himachal are concentrated mainly in Mandi, Chamba, Kinnaur and the Shimla Hills

 

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